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Talking Policy: Dr. Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi on the African Union

When the curtain rises on the 28th Ordinary Session of the Summit of the African Union on Jan. 22, the issue on many people’s minds will be the election of the new chairperson of the AU Commission. With the continent facing continued challenges of violent conflict and terrorism, persistent poverty and inequality, and the fallout from the decline in commodities prices, World Policy Journal spoke to the candidate from the Southern African Development Community: The Honorable Dr. Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, foreign minister of the Republic of Botswana, about the role she sees the African Union playing in addressing key challenges and realizing Africa’s potential. 

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What do you believe are the key issues at stake in the upcoming elections for the chairperson of the AU Commission?

PELONOMI VENSON-MOITOI: The key issues? There are many, actually. It depends on whether we are looking at the continent, Africa, or the office of the chairperson. But I am going to look at the office because that is the position I've applied for. 

Being a foreign minister I have been going to the African Union for three and a half years. Having listened to member states talk at the various meetings, what I've noticed is members complaining about accountability at the union, members complaining about reports back—reportage—of matters, of not getting sufficient feedback. Generally what I've also observed is the kind of impact that the office, the Union, the Commission, can have on member states and what member states know about both the Commission and the work of the African Union. 

So when the post fell vacant, I looked at my own background and also of course the background of Botswana. We have been very big on that administration and government. And I asked [President Ian Khama] if I could—at least if I get the opportunity and am elected—go and share the experience I have had in administration because I thought that the office itself needs administration—it needs a manager.

They are great politicians at the African Union, there are many chapters, the previous presidents, all the way back to the Nyerere’s and the Nkrumah’s. Fantastic politicians. It's a question of delivery—that's what piqued my interest. So I think that's where the biggest issue is: administration. Delivering on the wishes of those presidents. 

WPJ: You mentioned how your experience as foreign minister in Botswana inspired your desire to bring efficiency and delivery to the commission. Could you expand on that? Are there any examples that you could mention?

PVM: It's more my experience as a public officer and as an administrator. I've actually been in foreign affairs three years, but I think what you need at the AU is a manager rather than another foreign minister. We have enough foreign ministers at the AU. You need an administrator and a manager—a person who can take instructions from the heads of states to deliver that which they want to see delivered, the things they have been talking about for so many years. There are so many things that we have wanted done—they must see them done. The politicians have spoken. Member states have said what they want to see done in the various countries. It's a question of acting. For 20 years, I was an administrator in the public service. And for the past 17, I was a minister working on the policy side. So I could immediately pick up that this was a delivery problem rather than a policy problem. This is why I applied. 

WPJ: Are there particular issues, where you think the policy consensus exists, that could be acted upon quickly from a delivery and an administrative standpoint? 

PVM: Some of the things are, of necessity, long term. There are some that you are never going to solve quickly. We have to remember that most democracies on this continent are what, 50 years, 60 years old? And it is going to take time to get things done. But you have to start somewhere. 

So take migration, for instance. If we see migration positively, it is a good facilitator for trade, to create movement. The quickest thing we can do is to synchronize our policies and to facilitate movement of people by making sure the laws are right, the borders are accessible—that people can cross borders easily between countries. 

Next, to deal with our trade protocols—make sure that the trade protocols speak to each other between countries. Those are things we can encourage. You see the role of the AU is to support member states to do things. The AU cannot work at the country level. It can only be supportive to member states. But we must make ourselves present; we must make our presence felt by those member states. 

Speaking on the experience of Botswana, I don't know how strongly we felt it in Botswana, but maybe we were not too receptive. I don't know. But I think the AU can try harder to have its presence felt. 

There are issues like democracy and elections. In all those processes, it's a question of public education and public awareness—creating television programs, making sure that every single person understands what must happen. Education is needed so that politicians understand that the outcome of an election has two possible answers: You either win, or you will lose. And those are definite. And for politicians to only be prepared to accept a "yes," and for some reason to refuse a "no" vote—this is futile and Africa won't get too far. Somehow, one has to realize that this is a lesson that has to be taught. I get very encouraged right now when I see what is happening in ECOWAS in West Africa when all our heads of state are out there doing work that they should be doing to convince the head of state that has lost to say, "Look, you have lost." And this is good. And this is what should be happening more and more. More and more should have happened in the past. We can do some of these quickly and quicker. And politicians should know they will be shunned by other heads of state should they refuse to act in a certain way. 

WPJ: In terms of that relationship—between the individual nations, the regional communities such as ECOWAS, and the commission—there are natural tensions that come about on issues of sovereignty. How do you see that developing throughout the continent in terms of the relationship between state sovereignty and the regional and continental integration efforts that the commission and the Regional Economic Communities are promoting?

PVM: I think it depends on how the AU positions itself and how the AU explains and plays its role to the members. If the role is clearly supportive, as it should be; if the role is clearly policy support, as it should be; if the role, where it is legally binding as in the human rights court, such as the one in Tanzania; and if those roles are understood and played definitively, then confusions won't arise. The issue is to set up the roles and play them clearly, decisively, on time, and consistently. But if the rules are vague and they are not executed—you see again, I go back to the word "execution," it is administration. We have to act as we have promised. And if we act frequently and regularly, often enough, it becomes tradition and it's known we will act in this way, and eventually, we will be known to follow a pattern. 

WPJ: In October your ministry put out a strong statement in support of the International Criminal Court after South Africa and a number of other countries began the process of threatening to pull out. Why is Botswana so committed to the ICC and how do you manage political and ideological differences over the relationship between Africa and global institutions? How do you bridge those gaps between countries who would reject them and a country like Botswana that says, "We have to live up to the commitment that we made in Rome and so we should go forward in support of the ICC"?

PVM: Well I have a bit more comfort now, as it's not just Botswana on the continent that speaks that language, luckily. Those of us who say this believe very strongly that the basis of the Rome Statute was fighting impunity and protecting the voiceless, as well as making sure that governments do not trample over the rights of the helpless, anywhere. This is what the Rome Statute and its basic values are, and we believe those must be protected and kept. I have said this on the floor of the AU when I was speaking for Botswana—that we should correct the Rome Statute from the inside and fix those clauses that we find offensive, rather than try to dismantle it. 

But then again, in the position that I'm applying for, my hope is to talk about “fixing,” trying to convince my principals: "Let's find another way of dealing with this, let's find a way of strengthening our national machinery," because on the whole, no African state wants to allow impunity or allow the lives of the helpless to be trampled upon by anybody. There, we have a common understanding across the continent. So for as long as that common understanding exists, if I were to be given this opportunity, I would intend to raise this issue and hope that there will be a common understanding. Lately I have spoken to the president of the International Criminal Court and said, "Is there a way you could find common ground to work with the African Court? To make sure that we help each other strengthen the national machines so that this apparent conflict is reduced?" And he promised that should I be elected, he would be willing to work so that somehow the ICC is no longer as offensive as it is now viewed. And these are things I'm prepared to work with, to advise my principals, and to look at it in a different light. It may not be an easy battle and I cannot promise that it is a problem I can solve. I would be working with heads of state to talk to them, to see what we can come up with, but at the end of the day it has to be something that works to fight impunity, to make sure that we protect the voiceless, and to make sure that it is right for Africa. 

WPJ: How do you see and what role do you see the commission in playing in both attracting foreign direct investment to the continent, but also to make sure that that investment comes in a form that benefits a broad number of people? 

PVM: Foreign direct investment is good in that it helps to create employment, but the countries that it comes to have to be ready. They have to be ready in that they have to have the capability to negotiate properly. And I'm looking here at the field of minerals. Quite often countries with natural resources get cheated out of their wealth by foreign companies that come to harvest those resources. Quite often there is no beneficiation at home for processing those resources; those resources go out raw. We have to try to stop this within the continent to make sure that for those resources harvested on the continent, beneficiation happens at home and processing industries get developed at home, so that finished goods are produced at home and more employment can happen on the continent. That is the first part: striking good deals that will benefit our nation.

The second part is that we must protect our environment from pollution. We cannot look only at creating employment without worrying about the pollutants that will remain after the investor is gone. We have to make sure we build in agreements that will have a recovery plan for our environment or that limit the level of pollution. At least those two have to take place. But FDI is good; we need it.

WPJ: You had mentioned getting a good deal for countries. In the States, that's a phrase we've heard a lot in the last nine or 10 months in the election campaign from President-elect Trump. There has been some conversation about what the new administration in the U.S. and, in particular, its desire to renegotiate or reexamine trade deals might mean for Africa. Do you have any thoughts on how the Trump administration might impact the continent?

PVM: I wish I had. We watched that campaign very closely on the continent and quite frankly, I'm at a loss to try and guess which way it's going to go. And I think it would be a very premature and unwise for me at this point to say which way President-elect Trump is going to go. But, we remain hopeful. We remain hopeful that he will realize the potential that Africa has as a business partner and if he sees that, then he will know that Africa is open for business, and we will be able to work out a fair deal. And that's all I can say at this point, because until we hear his foreign policy, it's anybody's guess which way it will go.

WPJ: The AU has made it a point to emphasize the importance of the diaspora to Africa's development. How would you reach out to people of African descent throughout the world, whether they be new migrants or older generations? How would you reach out to them to speak about what they can do or how they can participate in the continent's growth in the coming years?

PVM: I think we need to secure the continent first. We have to create the confidence required to make Africa feel like home. We have to make Africans proud of Africa. And to do that, infighting and the squabbling have to stop. Investment levels have to grow and there has to be confidence. People must know that if I put my money in a particular investment, in a particular part of the country, it will grow—and I think there has been sufficient demonstration of that now. We have good examples like MASCOM, the telephone companies that are owned by Africans, that are doing very well. We have the Dangotes in Nigeria. And these are companies that are owned by Africans on the continent. These are slowly demonstrating to those Africans out there who have money to say, “Look, if you have it, you can come home and actually do your money good and invest and do something good on the continent.” So I think the turning point has started to happen. They don't need any more than that to start coming home. It's the little things that we have to do to build that final security to say step number two: The schools are good—you can educate your children at home. The health systems are good—if you fall sick, you will be cured at home. Those are the things that we need to do because as far as I am concerned, Africa is ready for business. 

WPJ: What is your vision for the AU in the years and decades to come? 

PVM: My vision is I see Africa blossoming, quite frankly. I don't know where the magic lies, but I think we can find it. We just have to sow unity, we have to start—you see what's happening in the Gambia today. For me, that's magic. Our heads of state are together, they're doing something, they're saying to their colleagues, “No, guy, look, it's not right.” We have to see more of those, and they've got it now. I'm sure they'll do it again. The next president who tries that number I'm sure will have more presidents telling them off. There's no turning back.

So, Africa is fixing itself. For me, the tide has turned. From here onward it needs good administration at the head, at the AU. I know I can do that and this is why I've put my name up.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by David Stevens]

[Photo courtesy of Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi]

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